Decrease in the Spanish population. From the end of the first decade of the 16th century, the scarcity and concentration of the indigenous work force in the few families of the colonial aristocracy continued to push the bulk of Spaniards to emigrate to other territories that offered greater possibilities for wealth. This situation intensified due to the new discoveries and conquests in continental America. It is calculated that in 1516, the total number of colonists on the island was less then 4,000. In 1528, the greater part of the population was concentrated in Santo Domingo and five towns had disappeared. Not even the growth in sugar production could slow the emigration.
Decline of gold. So great was the greed of the conquistadors and colonists that launched the gold extraction in Hispaniola that already in 1515, its quantity was significantly diminished. The decrease of the work force also contributed to the decline in gold activity. In 1519, the mines of the colonists hardly produced 2,000 gold pesos. In order to maintain colonial life on the island, it was decided to structure the economy on a foundation of another export: sugar.
The first mills. Though sugar cane was brought from the Canaries on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus (1493), it was not until 1503, under the Nicolás de Ovando government, that a resident of La Vega named Pedro de Atienzo produced homemade molasses. In 1506, another resident of La Vega named Aguilón, began to process sugar. Miguel de Ballester, mayor of the town, constructed a small mill for sugar processing in 1514.
The sugar production for exportation only began around 1510, when Gonzalo de Vellosa, motivated by the rise in the price of the product on the European market, constructed a refinery (powered by hydraulic energy) in the south of the island.
The definitive change in the productive orientation of the island came about in 1516, with the government of an order of priests known as the “Padres Jerónimos”, who promoted the sugar industry by distributing lands, loans and technical, operative and legal facilities.
The rise of sugar. The high sale value of the new activity attracted the members of the governing and bureaucratic class of the colony. These new residents established refineries: Miguel de Pasamonte (treasurer), Juan de Ampiés (clerk), Diego Caballero (secretary to the High Court), Antonio Serrano, Francisco Prado and Alonso Dávila (trustees), Francisco Tapia (mayor of the Fort of Santo Domingo), Francisco Tostado (scribe of the High Court), Cristóbal de Tapia (inspector), and Diego Colón (governor and, in his moment, “viceroy” of the colony). Those who also benefited were the men that had enjoyed the large encomiendas during the gold period.
In 1527, 19 refineries and six mills existed in the colony that functioned at full capacity, the majority on the banks of the Ozama, Haina, Nizao, Nigua, Ocoa, Vía and Yaque del Sur rivers. Sugar production maintained a growing rhythm during the first 60 years: in 1520 it reached an annual quantity of approximately 10,000 arrobas, and in 1580 it reached nearly 90,000 arrobas.
The treatment of blacks. The new work force. In the Antillean context, it is impossible to speak of the sugar industry without touching on the black slave work force. The heavy labor of the sugar refineries required muscle force greater than that of the indigenous people, in addition to the fact that their numbers had dwindled to the extreme. In 1518, by express authorization of King Charles I, licenses or asientos to bring blacks to America (and to Hispaniola) were distributed. These Africans, as opposed to Latin Americans, were employees in intense production labor. Latin Africans, that is, those westernized in Europe and integrated into the entourage of servants of Spanish nobles, had barely stepped foot on American soil before 1501.
To diminish the possibilities of uprising, the refinery owners preferred to import African slaves of different ethnicities. The predominant groups were Zape, Mandinga, Congo, Mondongo, Biáfara, Carabalí and those of the Gelofe language.
On average, 15 to 20 year olds were recruited, though at times they were as young as nine. Their forced work duties occupied up to 18 hours straight per day and included Sundays and holidays. Many died of fatigue and lack of sleep. Others fled to the mountains or defended themselves with weapons.
Slave uprising. Only four years after the beginning of African slave importation, in 1522, the first African slave uprising in America occurred (in this case, the rebels belonged to the Gelofe tribe). It occurred in the refineries of Diego Colón and Melchor de Castro and caused the death of 12 Spaniards. It was promptly repressed, but this did not diminish other slave escapes, individually or in groups. According to the situation, they received the following names:
• Cimarrones. Those that fled individually and established themselves in the mountains in order to attack productive units and isolated colonists. These attacks were called “cimarronadas”.
• Apalencados. Fugitives that concentrated in a significant number in a determined location in order to rise up in arms.
• Manieles. Communities of blacks established in the mountains without aggressive ends. They only wanted to live peacefully at the margins of the slave oppression. They created their own laws and cultural habits.
Their preferred places to live protected were San Nicolás, in the Cordillera Septentrional; Ocoa and Rancho Arriba, in the Cordillera Central; Punta de Samaná; Cabo de Higüey and Sierra de Bajoruco.
Black leaders. Among the most famous African leaders that commanded the slave revolts and escapes were:
• Juan Vaquero. He recruited a group in 1537. They roamed the sierras of the south and attacked colonists in village areas.
• Diego de Guzmán. “Cimarrón” of San Juan de la Maguana that attacked the region.
• Diego del Campo. He remained in the surrounding areas of La Vega for around 10 years. He was finally turned over the Spanish and came to work toward the persecution of his former companions.
• Lemba. He lasted for 15 years fighting in Higüey with the 150 people he led. He was trapped and executed in 1548.
Increase and decrease of the black population. In the 1540s, the number of African slaves ranged from 60 to 500 per refinery and/or mill, though there were some (the refinery of Melchor de Torres) whose slave workers numbered in the nine hundreds. It is estimated that for those years, the island had some 12,000 black slaves with a Spanish population that did not reach 5,000. Product of the incorporation of African women to promote reproduction and of the continuous legal and illegal importation of slaves, the total quantity of Africans working in refineries, plantations and domestic service ascended to 20,000 in 1568. This number was significantly reduced due to epidemics that plagued the island after the invasion of Francis Drake in 1586. In October 1606, there were 9,648 slaves.